Chapter 1 : Wrong Side of the Saleslady
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In the end, however, it was my sister who forced me everyday to confront two separate lives. Once it was clear that she'd take after my mother and end up at Hogwarts, I split my time between investigating her world and making sure she didn't forget mine. And, years later, it was the prospect of buying her a birthday gift that catapulted me right into the roiling mess between between the two worlds, where the magical and nonmagical brushed fingertips and sparks flew at the point of impact.
I shouldered open the door to Muggle's Books, mobile pressed to one ear, iPod being wrenched out of the other. The young lady behind the counter didn't so much as glance up from her own book, a peeling old thing. Instead she propped up her feet on the desk and took a drag of her cigarette. I paused in the process of stuffing my iPod away, unsure whether I was more intrigued by the hoops in her right eyebrow or the wand stuck so openly behind her ear.
“What's that?” I said into my mobile. “Right, sorry, on my way.” It was rather hard to hold, given the downpour outside that left water laced in my hair and slick on my phone. “No, I really didn't forget, I swear... I'm calling a cab right now. See you soon. Bye.”
I could tell from the “hmph” on the other end that my sister did not believe me. Always a sharp one, she was. But I wouldn't show up for her birthday dinner empty-handed.
The saleslady still hadn't acknowledged my existence. The proximity of her cigarette and her book was making me itch a bit, but I would never be one to unravel a lecture on respect and consideration on a complete stranger. Plus, I probably did the same thing when I was a bit younger. I probably would have found her piercings enticing and her spitting red hair mesmerizing too.
Someone, once upon a time, must have thought they were fantastically clever. Coming up with a name like Muggle's Books, and all. Muggles like myself supposedly thought it'd been opened by one Mathilda Muggle, while witches and wizards caught sight of the name and figured it must be for them.
My sister had introduced it to me a year or so back, delighted to find a shop that catered to both magical and nonmagical folk. We'd ducked inside, out of a similar storm, immediately accosted by the dusty smell of the place. I'd been taken by the way the shop's shadows bent curiously around the bookshelves, threatened to hide adventures beneath their inky wings.
We'd found the door in the back, to me marked “Employees Only: DO NOT ENTER.” My sister, however, tugged at my sleeve and read off it: “This door is for you.” A magical, mystical invitation if I'd ever heard one, enough to tickle my childhood dreams of marvels that were tucked behind every nook and cranny, if only I thought to twist the doorknob.
The moment I made my way over to said door, of course, the saleslady just about laid an egg.
“Oh no, sir, you mustn't go in there: 'Employees Only,' see.” She was by my side in a second, her claw around my elbow. Now that she was in such a tizzy, her hair was all swept off her face, and I could see the cool set of her eyes, green as a crayon color, the sort I used eat when I was a toddler.
I'd hoped to make off without trying to explain myself; I wasn't so much for conversation, it tended to lead itself down twisted paths and treacherous terrain far too quickly for me to keep my footing. But, thank God for my sister, at least I had some sort of a truth to scrounge up here.
“Right, but to me, this says, 'This door is for you.'”
She wasn't ready for that one. I watched her squint at me an extra second, then she released her grip. “Well, yes, yes it does. Sorry for the mixup— your mobile and all. Go on in, then.”
Well, now that I had her attention, it wouldn't hurt to have an actual witch helping me out with the magical books. “Actually, I'm in a bit of a rush, I'm late for my sister's birthday dinner. Could you help me pick out something for her?”
“Of course,” the saleslady said. She leaned past me to open the door, and I caught sight of her name tag: Lily. “Right this way.”
Now, my sister had taken me into the magical section once or twice before, but my breath still hiccuped a bit in my chest when I followed Lily in. This was nothing like the cramped affair in the public part; this was a veritable cavern. As a kid, I'd gotten used to my sister's tricks fairly quickly, usually no more harmful than an invisible mouse in my bed or a chatty alarm clock at four in the morning. But a room the size of an airplane hangar tucked under a bookshop was something else.
We went down a set of stairs, until the bookshelves loomed above us, four or five times my height. Lamps hovered above, glowing to life as we approached, so that I could see the books rustling in their spots. Their squeaks and clicks rained down on us in waves. A few even leapt off their shelves and into my arms, but Lily shot them a look and they fluttered back up to their spots.
“So,” Lily said, snapping back to business. “Tell me about your sister. Age?”
“She's turning twenty-eight or twenty-nine.”
She stopped in her tracks and swiveled around, catching me off guard so that I stood a hair too close to her, close enough to smell the smoke on her breath and see the mascara clumping on her eyelashes. “Which one?”
“Is she twenty-eight or twenty-nine?”
“Er,” I said, taking a step back. “Does it matter?”
She just shot me a look, not unlike the ones she'd been shooting badly behaved books. I took that as a yes. “She's twenty-eight.”
She took a hard right, down a row full of fat, bristling books. “Where'd she grow up?”
“Leeds,” I replied, then, on second thought, “but I think she considers Hogwarts her home.”
“Most do.” Lily banked left, then right again, not missing a beat. “I don't suppose you know her favorite book?”
“Couldn't tell you. Sorry.”
“Oh,” I said, hurrying to catch up as she continued down through the rows of shelves. “You know, I can never get her to shut up about how terrible that new book is, what's it called... Flying Fritters.”
“Mmm, yes. I have to agree,” Lily said. “All right.” She stopped before a particularly leaning bookshelf, rather dusty, a stray paperback inching its way along one of the upper shelves. Somewhere behind us, the door opened and shut: no doubt another magical customer, in search of an equally magical book. “Now: what's her favorite breakfast?”
“What do you need to know that for?”
“Weren't you in a hurry?”
“Right,” I said. “Fine. I think it's poached eggs.” Perhaps I should've picked something on my own after all. I wouldn't have had to deal with this snappy girl, all flounce and no fun.
“Good.” And with that, she plucked a book off the shelf, a shimmery violet thing with the title in neat lettering. I held out a hand for it, but she ignored me, retrieved her wand, and used it to pull out a second book from above our heads and lower it down. This one was dull and brown, but it flapped its way to us and I caught a glimpse what looked like hand-drawn illustrations in some of the margins. “Now, choose.”
“Yes. She'll like either, but it doesn't count as a proper gift unless you pick it out.” She stashed her wand back behind her ear. I wondered if she'd ever set fire to her hair or something, doing that. Meanwhile, somewhere in the depths of the room, I heard a clunk and a grunt, followed by a, “Shh! Idiot.” Lily still waited, unbothered.
“Oh, I disagree,” I said, checking my watch. “I'll pay for it, whatever it is, that's what matters.”
“This matters,” she shot back. “Trust me. Choose. If you want to take your time, I'll go help the other customers first.”
God, I was running low enough on time as it was, without her playing all touchy-feely or know-it-all or whatever it was that made her blood flow so stubbornly through that thick head. And it was true that we hadn't yet run into the people who slipped in a few minutes back. “You know what, I think I'll just take both.”
She raised an eyebrow, the disapproval practically oozing off of her. I held out a hand for the books, both of them, but first our mystery customer stepped into our aisle. He was wearing the funky robes I'd seen my sister in sometimes, and a second man scuttled up behind him, his eyes going round when he saw us. Lily hadn't heard them, so she didn't see the first man raise his wand and cry, “Stupefy!”
Now she whipped around, just in time for the red streak to blast her backward into my arms and take me down with her. When I looked up, I locked eyes with the man, bony with a wispy beard and a sneer plastered across his face. He raised the wand again and I shoved Lily off me, intending to run, or hide, or quite possibly leap through the nearest bookshelf if it would get me out of there— but first Lily's wand got caught under my hand, presumably after falling from behind her ear. I snatched it up and aimed it at the man, who hesitated: he didn't know it was Lily's.
We both noticed at the same time that I was holding onto the wrong end. At that point, I think I was resigned to the spell coming my way, and didn't even make it to my feet before I was out cold as well.